An outrage or politics as usual?
'Pass through' donation disturbs some local Democratic party leaders, others say 'ho-hum'
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Local Democratic Party leaders remain roiled in the wake of an $8,500 donation from the state party that passed through the local party executive committee on its way to a minority political group for a "get out the vote" effort last November.
Was the Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee used as "a laundromat" for campaign money in the last election cycle, as local party Chairman Brad Warren contends?
Or, as party veterans suggest, was it merely a common maneuver in the real world politics of an election season when two donations totaling $8,500 originated with the state Democratic Party, passed through the MCDEC, unknown to most of its members, and wound up in the bank account of the Mobile chapter of the New South Coalition to boost voter turnout for Democratic candidates?
The dispute has split local Democratic Party officials who lacked a quorum to resolve the squabble during a meeting in Semmes this week, but nevertheless engaged in a spirited and pointed "informational" discussion.
Afterward, with smoke still lingering and the combatants not entirely removed from the field, uncertainty reigned, even including the dated and signed resignation of the local party's treasurer whose letter withdrawing from the post had already been accepted by Warren. Later on, some disagreement arose whether Betty Gartman's apparent resignation was effective Jan. 31 or when her successor was tapped by vote of the committee. No new treasurer has yet been named and Gartman, at last report, continues to possess the party's books and in a recent email to some MCDEC members reasserted her hold on the office.
Setting a deadline of 12 noon Friday, March 13 for Gartman to surrender the books, Warren said he hoped to avoid involving the Sheriff's Department in reclaiming the party's financial records. With the deadline passed, Warren said he was seeking a court order to have Gartman relinquish the books.
MCDEC has 52 members currently. Maximum membership is 135. Party rules provide for 135 members representing 18 female and 18 males per each of the three county commission districts, plus 25 percent of those 108 as an additional 27 at-large members. A quorum to conduct business requires the attendance of 35. The recent session was well short of that number, with the 40-45 in attendance roughly an even split between members and visitors. The issue was carried over until the next meeting whose date and location were yet to be determined. Warren said he wouldn't set the meeting unless a quorum was assured.
According to Warren, there were two checks from the state Democratic Party Executive Committee, one for $2,500 dated Oct. 22 and a second for $6,000 dated Oct. 29. He said he believes MCDEC vice chair Janetta Whitt-Mitchell accepted the first check in Montgomery. Indeed, Whitt-Mitchell contends that Warren well knows that because they spoke by phone while she was in Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham's office. Denying knowledge of any monies from the state DEC to the local organization for GOTV until much after the fact, Warren said he did not know the path that the second check took to MCDEC's account, though he had "a feeling (it was) Fedex-ed straight to Janetta; that's the best I can get out of Betty Gartman."
The $8,500 was then transferred from MCDEC to the Mobile chapter of the New South Coalition in three checks, said Warren, whose signature, along with Gartman's, was on the checks. Even so, Warren said he was unaware of the transactions until later because he and Gartman would meet periodically to jointly sign blank checks in order to facilitate business.
With a "shame on me," Warren acknowledged that he had defeated the "fail safe" purpose of requiring dual signatures.
Whitt-Mitchell and her husband, state Rep. Joseph Mitchell, are active in the Mobile chapter of the New South Coalition. The coalition was founded in 1986 with the mission to advocate "cultural awareness, economic development, education, peace and justice."
Several MCDEC members questioned why state party leaders didn't simply write the checks directly to the Mobile chapter of NSC.
"MCDEC does not need to get in the middle of organizations vying for monies from sources who want to use our checking account to funnel funds to anywhere," said Vivian Beckerle, former Democratic congressional nominee and ex-county treasurer whose husband, Bob, clashed with Whitt-Mitchell during his tenure as local party chairman prior to Warren's election.
"The check or checks could have too easily been written directly from the source to NSC, so WHY were we used? What was the need?" Vivian Beckerle asked. "That question is what I heard several members ask the other night, but we never got an explanation."
However, she and they may not have been listening closely because one recurring explanation had it, to the apparent satisfaction of many but not all, that the subterfuge or "pass through" transfer of the money was intended to avoid arousing political jealousies among other NSC chapters in Alabama as well as NSC's larger rival, the Alabama Democratic Caucus which is an affiliate of the Alabama Democratic Party.
"Why didn't they just write the check to whomever they wanted to get the money?" asked Ben Sumrall, a retired communications worker who won a seat on the state Democratic Executive Committee when former Mobile school board member David Thomas was impeached and disqualified.
"They did not want ADC to find out or other New South chapters," said Warren, one of several to advance the explanation.
A call to state Democratic headquarters to speak with Turnham resulted in a brief conversation with party Executive Director Jim Spearman who expressed bewilderment that the transaction had sparked such a stir. Turnham did not return the call. MBT was later informed that the whole brouhaha was an aggravation that he did not plan to address publicly.
"We were circumvented," said Warren, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent County Commissioner Mike Dean for the District 3 seat. "I contacted the state (party officials) to ask why. They said the money went where it was supposed to go, so apparently they are okay with it. We don't need to allow this to go on in the future. This needs to be dealt with before we go through another election."
Loose campaign laws encourage such dubious moves, according to MCDEC secretary Jenny Parker. In this instance, the transfer was not Watergate stuff, but a convenience to guard against hurt feelings, she said.
"But such transfers (on a larger scale) can be used to hinder democracy by allowing large corporate donors to hide contributions and keep people from knowing who is funding candidates' campaigns," she continued. "This money was used solely for GOTV efforts and was not used to influence policy. This is a non-issue and the MCDEC needs to move forward and prepare for 2010."
A longtime state politico with no ties to the MCDEC was nonplussed.
"As for the New South issue, sounds like normal GOTV work in Alabama politics," he said. "The money goes as cash to folks to walk the streets, provide rides, make calls, etc. I suspect she (Whitt-Mitchell) doesn't have the information needed for an accounting. I doubt there is any there there."
Others, too, suggested Warren's outrage was ill-founded and out of proportion.
One offered that Warren's idealism is actually just naivete.
"Warren is a political novice who lacks any understanding of how campaigns are funded in Alabama," one MCDEC member said. "Some GOTV money is always distributed in a somewhat shady manner; he doesn't understand that. Democrats in Mobile County are being greatly hurt by this infighting. It's a good time for Republicans in Mobile County."
According to another MCDEC member, it was amateurish to draw the line over $8,500 for a county-wide GOTV push in a presidential election year when the money went where the provider wanted it to go and to an entity known to and funded by MCDEC itself for the very same purpose. Use some discretion in picking your battles, he said.
"To make Janetta the scapegoat is ridiculous," said local attorney Rose McPhillips who also serves as a part-time municipal judge for Mobile. "She had nothing to do with the flow of the money. Janetta was just on the receiving end (as a NSC figure). The money went where Joe Turnham wanted it to go. The means to stop that or object to it were with Brad and Betty Gartman who both signed the check. How does Brad go off hanging someone else?"
Some asserted that while the conveyance of money may have been like a PAC-to-PAC transfer, the MCDEC was not a political action committee to be used in such a manner.
The idea that MCDEC is not a political action committee is flatly mistaken, McPhillips added. That is exactly what it is and when the committee files its reports with election officials, it checks the box for PACs, not candidates, she pointed out.
"Regardless of my personal feelings, whether or not this was the proper way to do this, there seems to be no illegality," she said. "The committee is a PAC, so it can be done (legally). And if the executive board let it go through, i.e. Brad and Betty, then they are the ones who should be held accountable and not the one who received the funds."
Further, she said, not only did the money go where it was intended to go, apparently it was used in a way that achieved the objective that it was intended to: the Democratic Party in Mobile County realized a gain in support of 5.8 percent in 2008 over 2004. The Democrats' push to get out the vote got out the vote, she noted.
"I just don't see how Brad can hold other people accountable when he has admitted to signing blank checks," she said.
But MCDEC Parliamentarian John Paul Jones said Warren was more right than wrong.
"As a committee member, I agree with the Chairman on moral and ethical grounds," said Jones. "Our rules state that the Chairman shall have the authority to accept funds for the committee, and in doing so, he shall shall turn over said funds to the treasurer. To keep the record straight he shall receive a receipt for all said funds given to the Treasurer. The Chairman claims that checks came from the State committee and he was bypassed with receiving and re-dispensing the funds. He said that he had previously signed a blank check that the treasurer used to pass on these funds. The treasurer has submitted her resignation to the committee. The committee itself was also unaware of the receipt and disbursement of these funds and I find that objectionable."
Despite her letter of resignation as treasurer in which she apologized for contributing to the chairman's lack of confidence and trust in her and expressed embarrassment over the snafu, Gartman reversed field and rescinded her resignation in an email to Warren, to wit:
- "Please be advised that I am rescinding my letter of tentative resignation dated November 15, 2008. Many MCDEC committee members have spoken to me and expressed to me that they want me to continue to serve as treasurer. I hereby continue my duties and responsibilities as treasurer of MCDEC for which I was elected."
Some argued that Gartman's initial resignation wasn't official because it was never accepted by the committee sitting with a quorum present.
"This (about face), after it (the resignation) was publicly submitted, with a speech about how she and Brad could not get along, work together, lacked trust and confidence in each other or something like that," Vivian Beckerle observed. "I understand that Brad asked her to submit the books to him and she refused. Have the Mitchells now decided that to give Brad the financial information is not in their best interests, or that they would be relinquishing too much to the Committee, or what?"
In a letter to Warren written Nov. 15, Gartman said much soul-searching led her to offer her resignation. She said she had thought Warren was aware of the transfers based on conversations with Whitt-Mitchell. She said she was "embarrassed" by the misunderstanding, adding that it "can't be a good thing not to trust your treasurer."
The resignation was to be effective Jan. 31, wrote Gartman who offered to stay on until a new treasurer was in place.
Warren said all he knew of MCDEC's role in NSC's local GOTV effort was a $2,500 donation that the local party made separate from the other $8,500 NSC received from the state party via three laterals from MCDEC.
Whitt-Mitchell said New South had a GOTV plan costing about $10,000. Turnham liked the plan and wanted to support it, she said. She challenged Warren's account. Warren knew about the pass-through monies, she said.
"The only money I knew about was the first $2,500 (approved and donated by MCDEC)," said Warren. "I got a call from Turnham and he said the state party would be funding air time on African-American radio, but nothing about the New South Coalition. I had no idea money was going to be laundered through us. It's true we had a phone call, but I had no idea we were to be used as a laundromat."
"I'm not sure where all this is going," said Gartman. "They wanted the money to go to New South. They said they were happy with the distribution."
Gartman said she had written hundreds of checks over the years in behalf of MCDEC. It is not practical to bring the committee together to vote every time a check is written, she said. That's one reason why the treasurer and the chairman meet periodically to sign blank checks: so that business doesn't get bogged down. In hindsight, the "looseness" could be criticized, she acknowledged, but anyone with experience in the reality of an election season would understand.
Although some held that MCDEC either through its by-laws or by policy required committee approval for expenditures greater than $500, that notion was shot down and several committee members collected copies of canceled checks for amounts greater than $500 that had not gotten the committee's approval.
Warren pointed out that the committee voted on the initial $2,500 for NSC's GOTV plan.
"We raised it and we voted on it," unlike the $8,500 in later MCDEC checks related to state party funds, he said.
As long as the state party is satisfied that the money was spent as it intended, why should local officials object, said Whitt-Mitchell.
"$8,500 was run through our committee and that is not acceptable," said Warren.
Milton Morrow, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for county treasurer, demanded receipts from the NSC. He said poll workers were deceived about the support they would receive.
"We owe it to ourselves to find out where the money went," he said.
If NSC doesn't provide documentation, said Morrow, "I will personally send everything to the U.S. Attorney and the Attorney General's office and we'll get to the bottom of this."
Morrow the next day upon reflection had softened his position, regarding the issue as possibly more an impropriety than an illegality.
MCDEC member Herb McCants said "laundering" was an inflammatory description that only fueled the conflict with overtones of organized criminal activity.
"Let's drop that term," he said.
"I called it laundering and I stand there," Vivian Beckerle said. "There were several who asked why it had to be done the way it was done, and no one gave an adequate answer."
Renee Williams, whose Democratic bid to unseat her boss Marilyn Wood as county tax assessor fell short, complimented Whitt-Mitchell on her efforts as well as the gains the party made in 2008, even if they weren't as substantial as local party faithful had hoped.
However, she said, "(For) some of us, especially those of us who are new to politics, and unlike those who have been around a while and understand these things better, the perception is that something is not quite on the up-and-up."
Williams said her novice campaign taught her that "there are a lot of different groups with a lot of different agendas."
"As one who worked to raise money for this committee, I want to know where that money went," she said. "I do not want to work to sell tickets and do all the other work and not have a true accounting."
Patricia Lewis said she simply didn't understand all the fuss.
"I've lived in Chicago," she said. "Things like this happen all the time. There's nothing new here. Turnham sent the money to MCDEC for New South. For any one who has a problem with that, your problem is with Turnham. We ought to send a letter to Turnham to explain his actions, to tell us where the whole plan came from. If he says 'yes, the money was sent to MCDEC for New South,' then case closed."
"The fact that they do it in Chicago, doesn't impress me as sufficient evidence," said Beckerle. "The parties 'accused' were so on the defensive that they failed to realize that their best defense is to have a reasonable, believable explanation. By their words, I am led to even more suspicion of them. My experience has been that when one is so defensive, treats the questions as personal charges, and refuses to provide inquiring souls with sound information, there may be some smoke-blowing going on."
Warren said he had sought to no avail the assistance of Turnham, state Rep. James Buskey and Joe Reed of the Alabama Democratic Caucus in tracing the source of the $8,500.
According to Warren, he has repeatedly been advised that the state party is broke.
"I just see that we got used," said Warren. "I feel violated. I can't believe others don't share my outrage. I certainly sense it among some of the members. I just don't get what the others don't see."
Warren said if there was any money left over that the MCDEC had forwarded to the Mobile NSC chapter "it sure would be nice to get it back."
Refund or no, said Warren, the MCDEC was "well within our rights as a committee to ask for an accounting."
"I don't want this to tear us asunder," said Warren, "but we have to deal with this."
"We're not going to solve this tonight," said McCants. "What action to do you want us to take at the next meeting?"
"I want to eliminate a situation where someone has the power to circumvent this committee with $8,500," said Warren.
"Money is not the issue," said Joseph Mitchell. "Power and influence is."
"I don't want to be used as a laundromat," Warren said.
"We've just about beaten this horse to death," said McCants.
"This wasn't right and we ought to understand that going forward," said Warren. "No more pass through's."
Warren said he merely wants the matter dealt with openly and officially.
"If the committee decides against me, I can accept it and I can work with Janetta," he said. "Whether she can work with me, I don't know."
Afterward, one of the few MCDEC attendees who had remained silent throughout the meeting remarked, "I don't belong to any organized political party. I'm a Democrat."